|The Colby Reader|
This past summer I had the opportunity to travel through Georgia and Armenia, both former republics of the Soviet Union. What I learned there, was not how to buy the best Vodka in all of Eastern Europe or the finest caviar available. While buying vodka, however, I discovered that not all countries react the same way, when the shackles of communism are torn off. While both Georgia and Armenia have made great strides economically, socially and politically since the fall of communism, they still face tremendous hurdles.
For over seventy years, the USSR’s goal was to wipe away any nationalistic sentiment among the populace of their various republics and replace it with a pseudo-form of allegiance, that proclaimed good in all things Russian. The interests of the state were held above all else. Towering monuments made by the Soviets, that include two-hundred-foot tall metal statues of Stalin and Lenin, are constant reminders of the legacy left behind in the wake of the fall of communism in Asia and Eastern Europe.
Unfortunately, as I plodded through the streets of Tbilisi and Yerevan, the countries’ respective capitals, I realized that there are more important remnants of Soviet-style communism that have been left behind, other than ugly stone statues of dead soviet leaders. The most important legacy of communism can be found in the lack of modern technology such as computers and the existence of an underground economy which has mimicked, but failed to create a true capitalist and free economy. If these countries cannot effectively combat corruption, then foreign investment will dwindle and they will be left out of the information technology revolution and globalization will be something that they will read about in the newspapers—but never take part in.
While crossing the border from Georgia into Armenia, I was stopped a total of five times by military officers and policemen, each making sure that I was not carrying a cache of Cruise missiles, and, in their words, "to make sure that our passports were real". These events, in and of themselves, while a nuisance for travelers, are indicative of more pressing problems. The majority of the time spent at these checkpoints was spent waiting for passport information to be copied—by hand. Until more investment is pumped into these fledgling free-market economies, this technological backwardness will continue to exist.
A dangerous legacy of corruption will also persist for at least the near future, and unfortunately hold back both countries, until all citizens can be assured that they can make a fair wage without shaking down each other for some extra cash. Only when successive generations pass without the experience of having used corruption as a means to "speed up business", and until the economy moves away from its dependence on a black market, these fledgling economies will never grow.
Not only will investment need to continue to go to these countries, but prudent spending of this money needs also to occur. For a number of years, fresh capital from western nations flooded into Russia and some of the more promising republics. But, a large amount of this money has found its way into the pockets of corrupt politicians or businessmen. Privatization is also a concept that has had a hard time being implemented. After so many years of a state-controlled economy, government-owned businesses were to be sold to private investors or the workers were to receive a controlling interest. Unfortunately, a number of factories and businesses were simply given to the very same bosses and managers who ran the firms during Soviet times. A story was told to me while in Georgia, about a former communist party boss who was given ownership of a company he used to run. Instead of operating this new business by trying to attract foreign investment and forming crucial business partnerships, he simply sold all of the equipment and machinery to a German firm for a large sum, and fired all of the workers. Now, this example may not be indicative of how all privatization schemes have worked. But, corruption and the ensuing distribution of wealth into the hands of a few, will eventually cause foreign investment to slow and create real inequities between the Russian citizenry.
As I left the airport in Georgia to head home, I felt bad having been able to buy a really good bottle of vodka for a mere four dollars. But, I thought to myself, this was one exportable commodity that was pumping some money into the economy of this country. Then, as I reached the passport booth and the guard began trying to extort three hundred dollars from my father and I, I realized that Georgia had even larger problems to confront.
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